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Welcome To The Radio Gulag

ALL of the big North American radio companies are hurtin’ for certain right now. Major debt issues are hounding the big guys, rumors of bankruptcy abound and total radio revenue continues to decline. Digital revenues keep going up beyond television’s lofty numbers and mobile isn’t far behind, all leaving radio in the dust of an empty bank vault. Frustrations pile on frustrations for the big radio players. There is incontrovertible data showing superior reach, local strength and the potential for full-on interaction that should be boosting radio revenue into the stratosphere…except it isn’t. There are dozens of factors, no doubt, but I think there is one culprit above all others. The sad thing is, the people in a position to do something about it never will. Let me explain. This will take a minute and might seem a bit scattered, but bear with me.

Late last year, I wrote a blog about the evolution of European radio. In it, I said that just a couple of decades ago, the European broadcasters were listening carefully to everything we did on this side of the Atlantic and emulating everything they heard. Those were heady days in the old countries. One by one, European governments were giving up their stranglehold on radio within their respective borders and allowing commercial radio to get rolling. The public demand for pirate radio stations, floating around in the seas evaporated as bright, new radio stations began operations in all the major cities. From Lisbon to Warsaw, commercial radio was exploding.

The further east you went, the slower the process. I had been working with the late Ernie Anderson as the voice of Z100 for a few years when he got all excited about taking a vacation to Moscow in the Soviet Union. (It was on his “bucket list” and once Glasnost got rolling, he applied for a visa immediately.) I got excited too because he promised to record some radio for me. Well, Glasnost definitely had not extended to radio at that time. Moscow radio was dreadful. He said it was a lot like the city itself, all grey, nothing exciting in the architecture outside the Kremlin (which was built long before the revolution of 1917). He complained it was the most boring city to look at he’d ever been in all his travels. Their radio was equally boring. It wasn’t until AFTER the Soviet Union collapsed that Moscow radio started to get revved up. Once it did, they jumped into it big time.

As you well know, radio is a hungry beast that needs continuous feeding. The Voice in Denmark, one of my very first voiceover client stations, continually pestered me for American air checks. Programmers from across the continent would gobble up any kind of recording that gave them some insight into our methods and modes of operation. Many of them came to our shores seeking radio enlightenment, traveling from New York to Toronto, Miami to Los Angeles and all points between, listening and absorbing, recording and journaling every aspect of what we were doing. They would then go home to teach their staffs how to “do it right.”

They learned well and grew into mighty broadcast behemoths like NRJ in France, RTL in Germany and Veronica in Holland. Today these stations and hundreds more like them are vibrant and strong fixtures in the community, helping to shape the cultural landscape of Europe. In fact, I would go so far as to say radio (and television to a lesser extent) was probably instrumental to the formation of the European Union, as it brought about much more awareness of neighboring countries and began to cross-pollenate ideas and ideals between nations.

Today’s European radio is fabulously creative. Every time I travel there, I hear things that raise the hair on my arms and make me grin. It doesn’t matter if it’s in English, Spanish, French, German or Dutch, it tee-totally works on every level. As a producer, it gets my blood pumping to hear NRJ in Paris. You don’t need to speak the language to hear the rhythm and flow of the words as they’re woven into the music and effects. It’s almost like I’m that impressionable young girl from Dubuque who swoons when someone reads French poetry. I might not understand one word, but it just sounds sexy!

Today, even Moscow has finally gone through their own radio revolution. Right now you can hear every conceivable format on stations like Rock-FM (yeah…Rock), NLR (Christian) and Radio 101 (Oldies). Russian radio is every bit as competitive as US radio ever was…and then some. I think Ernie would love it.

Last year during the holidays, I was in Cork, Ireland, listening to Red-FM. If you ever have the chance to go, spend some time with Red. This is a radio station that is truly part of the fabric of the city. The words, the effects and the music all combine to mesmerize the listener. Most, if not all of their production comes from a production house called Sonic Surgery, headed up by Brendan Bourke. I only wish I could be as consistently good and strong a producer as they are.

In contrast, something very different was going on in this hemisphere, even while European programmers were here, picking our brains for their product. The FCC relaxed ownership rules and the feeding frenzy began. Once the blood cleared from the waters, a handful of companies, leveraged to the absolute hilt, owned almost all of US and Canadian radio.

At first, the mega-companies seemed benign to the business. As they maxed out their allowed number of stations in market after market, the local programmers and producers were pretty much left to their own devices. North American broadcasting remained as it was, vibrant and exciting, lucrative and secure, even recession-proof. It didn’t seem to matter how the economy was doing, advertisers were constantly banging on the door, trying to improve their share of whatever market they were in. They knew that radio was the least expensive, easiest to use and the only “available anytime” medium. To them, radio was a no-brainer.

Then, all that leveraged debt started to come into play. The people who had loaned these companies all that money began to ask for some return on their investment. The all-knowing grand Pooh-Bah types decided that to save big money, they would do national promotions. To the local station, it would mean a bigger prize for a promotion, but their listeners would compete with hundreds of thousands of listeners across the continent to win that prize. Only one market in 200 would actually win the top prize. That leaves 199 markets without a payoff for the promotion. Additionally, because their promotions were national, they only needed one producer to make all the promos and sweepers for the contest…making 199 producers superfluous.

They then started to dismantle the farm club system radio had depended on for decades. When a station in market 52 wanted to hire a new jock, the PD would start listening to stations in market 53 and below for that hot NEW talent they could take in and use to grow their station. Today, that doesn’t work, because in market after market, you hear the same talent being voice-tracked in from bigger markets. Eventually, that PD will probably end up voice-tracking a talent in from a bigger market. I’m sorry but, on the face of it voice-tracked talent can never be a “local” jock. You can do several topical lines a day and it still will not have the same feel and sensibility as someone who is “Live and Local.” I’ve yet to hear a VT show that didn’t sound canned. Some come close, but eventually, they all say/do something that makes it obvious that they are someplace else.

After a very short time, the Reduction In Force notices started to go out. Massive numbers of talent, both on-air and production fell to the RIF-fairy. All that creative talent just flushed away like so many leftovers after a dinner party. The bean counters must’ve been rubbing their hands together in glee! Think of ALL the money we’ve saved!

OK, so let’s recap. You’ve reduced the workforce by a third (roughly). In most stations, large and small, you have one, two or even three shows being shipped in from elsewhere. Almost all of the promotional contesting is being produced nationally by a couple dozen pretty talented people, using voices that are too often mediocre because all the big name talent would be too expensive. What’s not to like? You’re saving money hand-over-fist and yet…you’re still losing money.

These few companies have taken what was once a thriving business, filled with innovation and brilliant creativity, and turned it into something that’s all grey, nothing exciting outside the heritage stuff that was there before you got your hands on it. You have turned North American radio into Soviet Moscow radio; dull, lifeless and really not very appealing to the “I want what I want when I want it” crowd, the very listeners who radio used to serve so brilliantly.

In three decades, European radio has become what US and Canadian radio was and US and Canadian radio has become what European radio was, only instead of being government controlled, we are being controlled by oligarchs.

Some will view this as an indictment against my former employer, iHeart Media, but while iHM is certainly culpable, this is an indictment against ALL the major players. They’ve all done the same thing, and today they’re all scratching their collective heads, wondering what went wrong. Why the “cash cow” of the last century has suddenly become a dead-end business.

Can it be fixed? Sure! Can it be fixed quickly? Probably not. I know a LOT of people who are in high positions in several of these companies who could make an immediate difference, but they have to let go of the “group-think” BS that got us into this predicament. Stop trying to fit radio into your Wharton Business School models. Creativity is not a commodity you can buy and sell. It’s something that needs to be cultivated and grown.

You need to understand that the big prizes that come with national contests sound great on the front end, but when nobody in your town wins the prize, you don’t trust the station when they announce the next big prize. After four or five contests go by without one local winner, contests become meaningless. They are just clutter that gets in the way of the music. What you need are contests that speak to the mentality of any given market. People in Duluth do NOT think the same way as people in Tucson. They have different values and place different values on the things you offer as prizes. And to be completely honest, big prizes just seem unreachable by the average listener. Give away T-shirts, downloads, gift cards to local merchants and tickets to local concerts. You’ll generate 50 times the excitement, guaranteed. And if you’re going to throw a music festival someplace, give guaranteed tickets and trips to select local stations that they can use in their own contesting. It’s the same number of trips but with MUCH more impact.

You need to have talent that can show up for the parade or party or supermarket opening. Talent that truly cares about the community they serve because they live there too. They need to belong to the PTA, go to local gyms and night clubs, buy their cars at local dealers and dine out at local restaurants. This makes them a real-life celebrity in their town and not just some disembodied voice on the station they used to listen to on their way to work.

Honestly, I don’t expect that anyone who CAN do something about our collective predicament will. Who am I but a former employee of one of those giant companies? I’m fairly sure that this will be regarded with detachment, if at all, but what these people are doing is clearly not working for the radio industry. Perhaps on a personal level, things are all hunky-dory for those Senior VPs and COOs, so they have a difficult time even seeing the problem, but the problem exists nonetheless and if it doesn’t get fixed soon, we’ll all be sitting at the bar reminiscing about the glory days of radio.

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